OPINION: Border politics are worse for Joe Biden than anyone else


                        A migrant family crosses the Rio Grande from Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, Jan. 3, 2024. More than 60 House Republicans traveled to the southern border in Texas on Wednesday, seeking to pressure the Biden administration to enact stricter immigration policies as a record number of migrants enter the U.S. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

Credit: NYT

Credit: NYT

A migrant family crosses the Rio Grande from Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, Jan. 3, 2024. More than 60 House Republicans traveled to the southern border in Texas on Wednesday, seeking to pressure the Biden administration to enact stricter immigration policies as a record number of migrants enter the U.S. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

For one brief moment, it looked like Congress and President Joe Biden might have had a deal on border security earlier this week. As president, Biden had the most to gain by solving the crisis at the Southern border — but Republicans in the House couldn’t let that happen. Donald Trump made sure of it.

“A BAD BORDER DEAL IS FAR WORSE THAN NO BORDER DEAL,” Trump wrote on Truth Social before the details of the bipartisan agreement were released this week. Translation — vote no, no matter what.

The truth is, House Republicans didn’t need Trump to tell them what to do. A conservative Republican has never been defeated in an election or booed off a stage for refusing to pass new immigration laws. But plenty, including several in Georgia, have been booed for even negotiating with Democrats on the issue.

So even though the Southern border really is a crisis, and even though the legal immigration system in the United States is so broken it makes heading to the border seem like a logical idea, the politics of immigration in Washington are more broken than the border itself.

But that’s where Biden comes in. Because the failure to control who and how many people are allowed into the country isn’t just about immigration for voters right now. It’s about competence.

Images of migrant families huddled under bridges, children being hoisted above their parents’ heads to cross the Rio Grande, or crowds of migrants in shelters across the country are worrisome. Even for people who support immigration and welcome migrants looking for a better life, it all looks so out of control.

“People want a leader and that really is one of the reasons I think you see Trump doing so well in polls right now,” Cody Hall said Tuesday.

Hall is an advisor to Gov. Brian Kemp. He was with Kemp at the Southern border Sunday and said the situation there is politically dangerous for the president in more ways than one. “Biden is seen as weak and ineffective and probably too old. Blaming Republicans instead of owning the issue really leans into his weaknesses as a candidate right now.”

It’s revisionist history, of course, for Republicans in Congress to now say that Trump was able to control the Southern border, while Biden is not. The former president was only able to close the border in 2020 by declaring COVID a public health emergency and then bar all crossings in the name of containing a communicable disease.

Before that, he scrambled to deal with the same kind of migrant influx that Biden is dealing with. But instead of letting migrants cross the border and board buses to asylum processing centers or points unknown, Trump infamously detained more than 5,000 migrant children apart from their parents to discourage more migrant families from coming.

The situation became so dire in 2018 that First Lady Melania Trump went to a detention facility in McAllen, Texas to visit children herself, but wearing a jacket that read, “I really don’t care. Do U?” And Trump never did build that wall or make Mexico pay for it.

It turns out American voters care very much about what’s happening at the Southern border today. A recent Harvard CAPS-Harris national survey of registered voters showed the Southern border overtaking inflation as the top concern for a plurality of voters in the country. And it wasn’t just Republicans who were worried.

According to the poll, 64 percent of all registered voters said conditions at the border are getting worse, including 46% of Democrats. Most worrisome for the president, 49% of independents said the situation at the border makes them less likely to support him in November.

Those sentiments may be part of the reason Biden was willing to cut that deal with Republicans this week. And the deal they crafted over the last four months could have made a meaningful difference, said Charles Kuck, an immigration lawyer in Georgia.

“There’s a deterrence that comes from declaring an emergency, limiting the applications at ports of entry, and automatically deporting everybody else who is not at a port of entry,” Kuck said. “What’s missing now is the deterrence factor.”

The legislation itself would have increased Customs and Border Patrol staff by thousands, significantly boosted deportation flights, and capped the number of migrants allowed to cross the border seeking asylum daily. Those were all GOP priorities when Republican senators said earlier this year they were ready to do a deal to focus on border security.

Leading up to it, Gov. Kemp had demanded that Biden do more to control the situation at the border. But when I asked him if the package in Washington counted as doing something,

Kemp called Biden’s support for it “completely political.”

Keep in mind that Kemp went to the border Sunday with a dozen fellow GOP governors to hammer the president for failing to do what Trump, Barack Obama, and every previous president of the past three decades have also failed at.

But Kemp also laid out the real problems he’s struggling with as governor that law enforcement trace back to the border with Mexico, including human trafficking and a proliferation of fentanyl in the state.

“I’ll go back to my trip to Davos last year at the World Economic Forum when I was on a panel with Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin and Chris Coons,” Kemp said of the three moderates. “I told them, ‘I appreciate y’all working on bipartisan immigration reforms. But while you’re doing that...just secure the damn border.’”

Securing the border while working to improve immigration laws seems like a reasonable position for most voters. But it’s also easier said than done, mostly because of the complex immigration and asylum laws that currently exist.

And that brings us back to Congress, who are the ones who could change the laws. But it’s Biden who has to find a way forward, even if they never do.

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